Film Review: Byzantium

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 28 May 2013

It’s been the best part of 20 years since Neil Jordan’s bloodsucking hit Interview with the Vampire, and now he’s back with Byzantium, another vampire flick, only this time the ladies – in the form of Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan – get to do most of the biting (or more specifically: thumbnail stabbing).

Written by Moira Buffini (Tamara Drewe), this tale of mother-daughter relations is a sort-of new take on the vampire genre. Arterton plays Clara, a 200-year-old vampire and mother of Eleanor (Ronan), also frozen in time by her undead affliction. Their existence is an uncertain one, the relationship defined by togetherness as well as disparity: Clara believes they must always look forward, never back, but after 200 years Eleanor is having trouble living with her secret; so much so, in fact, that she writes her confessions down in notebooks and casts them out to the wind. The pair move from town to town, Clara working as both prostitute and pimp to provide for them, until one day Eleanor meets a sickly human called Frank (Caleb Landry Jones) with whom she develops a bond.

Jordan’s and Buffini’s vampires have protractible thumbnails which they use to pierce the flesh of their victims, as opposed to the traditional fangs, though blood is still very much on the menu. This is just one of a series of little quirks that differentiate the film from its brothers and sisters in the vampire genre, but the themes of the film, and the way in which it deals with them, will still be pretty familiar territory for genre veterans.

The film, shot by Sean Bobbitt (Shame), is very pleasing on the eye, and conjures a sense of strangeness out of its otherwise ‘everday’ locations. The exception to this ordinary, realistic feeling is a beautifully realised island central to the narrative – the film’s most obviously fantastical element.

Arterton and Ronan give strong performances here as vampires (though the word is never mentioned) trapped in an eternal cycle of moving on and getting by, but some of the film’s more interesting themes – Eleanor’s nascent sexuality and her preference for euthanising victims “ready for death” – don’t come across as strongly as they could have done. The mother-daughter relationship, too, is convincing but emotionally distant, perhaps because of the film’s structure – Eleanor’s time (and therefore ours) is divided between her burgeoning relationship with Frank, her desire for solitude, and her mother, while the film itself also flashes back to fill in the gaps in the story. It’s a little jumpy, and as a result feels a little cold. That isn’t to say it can’t be effective, because there’s good work in here, but the climax sadly lacks the emotive punch it’s looking for.

Without the hooks of the central themes catching quite as they could, it’s left to the relationship between Frank and Eleanor to contextualise the latter’s existential grief, and unfortunately it, too, doesn’t prove overly convincing. This may well be a result of the film’s structure – the two don’t share that much screen time, all things considered – but also Caleb Landry Jones’ performance is perhaps a little overcooked.

Byzantium tells an interesting story with a degree of visual flair, and it s well acted, but it ultimately feels a little disjointed. Not entirely successful, then, but with enough ideas and performed with enough vim to still be an enjoyably gothic drama.


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